Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 85

A group of leading Russian human rights activists has sent a letter to President-elect Vladimir Putin asking him not to allow the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Aleksy II, to participate in the May 7 presidential inauguration. When Boris Yeltsin was sworn in for his second term as president in 1996, the patriarch was among those top officials who stood on stage with Yeltsin as he was sworn in. While Aleksy did not administer the oath of office, he was the only religious figure who was on stage with Yeltsin. The leaders of Russia’s other major confessions sat in the audience.

Among the signatories of the letter to Putin expressing misgivings over the Patriarch’s role in the inauguration were Ludmilla Alexeeva, Sergei Kovalev, Marina Salye and Lev Ponomarev. Ponomarev, who is a founder and leader of the Democratic Russia movement and also heads a human rights group called “For Human Rights,” argued that the Russian constitution makes no mention of religious leaders or representatives participating in the inauguration or swearing-in of a president. In addition, the ceremony is secular, involving no religious oaths or rituals, he said. Ponomarev also said that “the country is multiconfessional, and a demonstration of the Patriarch’s special proximity to the government can be seen by other religious confessions as an insult.” The signatories to the letter noted that in such countries as the United States, France, Switzerland and Germany, religious leaders and representatives participate in the inauguration of the head of state only as guests. They also noted that even countries in which the Catholic church is powerful, such as Poland, Italy and Spain, would not allow such an open expression of the links between the church and state.

However, despite Ponomarev’s fears that the Orthodox patriarch’s high-profile role in the inauguration will be an insult to other religions, representatives of other religious faiths are apparently not particularly bothered by this prospect. “All of this is politics, which we regard with indifference,” an anonymous official from the office of Russia’s chief rabbi told a newspaper. “If only the Patriarch will be next to the president again, this does not particularly bother us.” Sheik Farid Asadullin, a member of the Council of Muftis of Russia, said that the council’s chairman, Ravil Gainutdin, had been invited to the inauguration, but that it was not clear yet how he would participate (Segodnya, April 29).

The Kremlin announced last week that foreign leaders would not be invited to Putin’s inauguration because it is a “domestic event.” Foreign ambassadors based in Moscow will, however, be invited (Moscow Times, April 28).